What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part One: A History and The Farm)
What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part one: A History and The Farm)
By Tonya Little
If you are immersed in the red dirt scene it just becomes a way of life; you learn the ins and outs and figure it out by being around it. But there are always those on the outside who pose the question, “What is red dirt anyway?”
That, of course, is a very good question. There’s the theory that if you can’t explain something fully and coherently to someone else, then you don’t really understand it yourself. However, this particular genre of music is incredibly hard to explain. In fact, when asked to explain what red dirt music is by anyone in the scene, there is a likelihood that you will get many different and varying answers from both the musicians and fans. Actually I did get a variety of answers when I posed that question on social media:
“It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s country, folky, bluesy, but mostly the heartfelt lyrics being sung to be listened to and not just a catchy phrase to be played and heard by the masses on ‘the man’s’ radio stations,” said musician Patrick D. Winsett, of the Foolish Pride Band.
“It’s music that rattles you with a perfect blend of several genres, based on strong songwriting; it’s clever yet basic instrumentation and is very approachable as it is music for the everyday man or woman and often tells relatable stories,” described music lover Drew Watson.
“It’s music made by kids that grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Metallica. Kids that went their own way. It has a unique feel. It’s not Texas country; it’s damn sure not Nashville. It is what happens when you put old school country, rock, blues, folk and Whiskey into a blender,” said Trigger Latimer, who has worked with many bands in the scene.
I was introduced to red dirt music via Chad Sullins and The Last Call Coalition some six odd years ago. Sullins would often say, “We’re a rock band that plays country music. We’re too rock to be country and too country to be rock,” during their shows.
For me, that was the first real definition of the red dirt sound, and it became my first basis of understanding. However, after being in the scene for a while, I would come to learn that this was just scratching the surface. I am a relative newcomer to this scene; I didn’t grow up with it like many people did. I stumbled onto the scene back in 2009 and I don’t even pretend to know everything there is to know about it all. I definitely don’t consider myself an authority on the subject. However, as someone who loves to learn and enjoys research, it’s been a pleasure to piece together a history and evolution of the red dirt scene.
Among conversations I have had with many people in the scene on the subject, I also had the opportunity to talk with John Cooper of the The Red Dirt Rangers about what red dirt is and the history behind it all.
“That’s really a difficult question,” said Cooper. We’ve spent 30 years trying to tell people what that is. I mean the reason we called our band The Red Dirt Rangers before there was even a ‘red dirt scene’ was we just liked the name and we thought it fit the area and what was going on musically.”
Once upon a time, I think the term “red dirt” was created to give name to a group of Oklahoman musicians who didn’t really fit in anywhere else; a name for bands who did their own thing without care for the “rules” of the big music game, commonly found in the Nashville area. I also think that although this name may have been used to describe a certain sound and style of music at one point, I really think now the term is loosely used, not to describe a musical sound, but instead to describe a community of like-minded musicians who play by their own rules. I also think that, although there was a certain sound of red dirt when it started in the mid-‘70s, that sound also evolved into something different in the ‘90s, and continues to evolve as time goes on, which is probably true for any genre of music really.
Take rock and roll for instance; what was described as rock and roll in the ‘50s definitely isn’t the same sound as the rock and roll of the ‘80s, but yet it’s all just rock and roll.
I think to really understand something, you have to go back and look at the roots and where it all began. Many people wrongly believe that red dirt didn’t start until the ‘90s, when names like Cross Canadian Ragweed and The Great Divide made it more popular, but really it all started 20 years before that. Steve Ripley, who was born in Idaho but grew up in Oklahoma, was actually one of the first musicians to use the term red dirt when he and his band, Moses, put out an album and named their label Red Dirt Records in 1972. Printed on that album it says, “Red dirt is a hue of funk, a shade of sound, a basic spirit embodied in music.”
Also, Jesse Ed Davis, an Oklahoma Native American musician, released a song called “Red Dirt Boogie Brother” – also in 1972. However, the birth of the red dirt music scene started really growing in the mid-‘70s and can be pinpointed to Stillwater, and even more specifically to an old two-story house on the outskirts of town, which was simply called “The Farm”. John Cooper rented the five bedroom house, which sat on 150 acres, starting in 1979. It became a musical refuge for many local musicians, including Bob Childers, who is commonly known at the godfather of red dirt.
Childers and Cooper, along with Jimmy Lafave, Tom Skinner, Greg Jacobs, Chuck Dunlap, Randy Crouch, Ben Han, Brad Piccolo and Steve Ripley, were some of the first musicians on the scene to be a part of this collective experience. Although these are some of the more well-known names from that time, this (of course) is in no way a complete list of the musicians who were a part of the scene, which largely included The Farm.
“I moved into the farm in May 1979 with Danny Peirce, going to college at OSU and looking for a place to live,” explained Cooper. “We drove down the driveway of this old farm house and we were like, ‘man, we could live here.’ And basically it was just a big party house for college kids, we were kings of the two- and three-day parties. But as time went on and musicians found out about it, they would be drawn there because they had a place to play and people to play for.”
In fact when he first moved in Cooper didn’t even know how to play an instrument yet; he didn’t begin playing music until the nights at The Farm turned from college parties into musical jamborees.
“I don’t know if it began there, but it sure grew there; it was a great place for it,” said Childers about The Farm in the documentary “North of Austin, West of Nashville: Red Dirt Music”. “It was just the kind of place, when I was living there, you know someone would just show up and say, ‘Is there going to be a jam? When’s the next party? When’s the next jam?’ And I’d say, ‘Go get a 12-pack and build a fire and it’ll happen,’ and that’s just the way it was. On any given night people would come by to see if a jam was going on; there must have been hundreds of songs. And the atmosphere was just far enough out of town but it was easy to get to, but not where you would be bugged, and everyone likes to sit around a campfire and play guitar.”
It was like the home office for red dirt.
“It was basically the unofficial headquarters for red dirt music for 20 years,” said Cooper. “I think Stillwater allowed a setting and The Farm in particular for this music to evolve. Red dirt music would have happened whether The Farm was there or not because there was just too much in the mix in Stillwater at the time, but The Farm was an outlet that allowed all that to come together and I think it became stronger because of it, because of that ability for people to come together out there, all of those different bands – all of those different sounds – weren’t restricted by anything as far as you gotta play this or that or whatever you played at all.”
It was the center of everything.
“It was a great focal point for everything,” said Childers. “And that made it good for songwriting, because you might write with somebody, rather than just one band writing all their stuff kind of in a tight little group; there was all this cross pollination going on. You know you might write with a guy from one band one time and somebody else the next, plus there was a lot of writing people you could pitch them to, to actually do the songs. That was what it was for me; a community.”
LaFave wove lyrics about The Farm into a couple of his songs. On “Red Dirt Roads at Night” those were: “Those younger years never did me no harm / always seemed to be a party at the farm…” And on the song “Ramblin’ Sky” they were: “I know a farm down in the red dirt country / where magnetic properties reside / and there may be a pathway into the hollow earth / underneath that big old rambling sky...”
I can only imagine the magical musical nights around fires that happened with all of these people at The Farm. It became a musical commune of sorts; hosting more musicians in one sitting than any other place could offer. The lyric ideas and tunes being thrown around, layered together piece by piece, with many different creative minds in the mix must have been an incredible experience to witness.
The Farm was a place where all of these musicians could go and have camaraderie and a musical fellowship of sorts. They understood that the music they were creating didn’t have to fit a certain mold and they found freedom in that. It became an almost sacred breeding ground for music and talent. The Farm became the unofficial red dirt music school of sorts.
The Farm wasn’t the only place to hear red dirt in Stillwater back in those early days though; there were many venues on the strip in the ‘70s that offered live music and a place for the musicians to showcase their talent. These included The Golden Whaler, Lafferty’s, The Other Place, The Mason Jar, Willie’s Wild West Saloon and the Jail Saloon – just to name a few.
Many of these early pioneers of the genre could be found playing music on the strip as the scene started developing. The still popular Willie’s Saloon actually opened in 1974 on the west side of the strip, and moved to its current location in 1985. It was one of the most noted venues that played an important part for red dirt music and musicians, especially during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Willie’s was actually the place where Garth Brooks could be found playing regularly before his move to Nashville and big break in music. Both Tom and Mike Skinner played in the band with Brooks for a while in the ‘80s. Although many don’t think of Brooks as a part of the red dirt scene, he was a product of that environment and credits red dirt for where he is.
“I’m very proud to take my place as an Oklahoma artist; I don’t think we would have had this sound anywhere else. And if I hadn’t run in to the Skinner Brothers, I don’t think you would’ve heard the sound we had,” Brooks said in an interview for Tulsa World.
In an interview with Aaron N. Moore for his college thesis, “Playing in the Dirt: Stillwater and the Emergence of Red Dirt Music” (2010), Brooks shared that Stillwater played a big part in his beginning.
“I wouldn’t have a career without Stillwater,” he said. “It is the birth of my music … red dirt music. From the earth … what you do with it after that is up to you … but Stillwater gave me everything I needed to know about music. My music is what it is on the outside, but I believe with all my heart that red dirt music is the backbone of my body of music.”
The sounds and songs of the first red dirt pioneers were folksy and bluesy with a tinge of rock and a tinge of country. They were mixing up genres in a way few had done before, which actually set the foundation for this large red dirt umbrella that so many people fit into, yet may not sound anything alike.
“We started calling it red dirt music because we got tired of when people asked ‘what kind of music do you play?’ We got tired of saying we play rock and roll, country, folk, bluegrass, blues, Cajun, Tex Mex, swing and funk. It was too much. So we thought, well we don’t really know what it is so we’ll just call it red dirt music. That term just picked up,” explained Cooper.
Some say it goes beyond what we can hear though.
“I’m not sure it’s a sound so much as it’s a fellowship and attitude,” said Tom Skinner when asked what red dirt was in the “A Day with The Rangers” video by This Land Press.
One thing is for sure, though; red dirt has a whole host of heroes at this point.
“To me when I think of red dirt I think of people like Bob Childers, Jimmy LaFave … even Garth Brooks. Basically to me, red dirt … if you’ve haven’t spent any time in Stillwater, Oklahoma, you’re not red dirt. You can say that’s what you are aspiring to be, but to me that’s where it all comes from,” said Brandon Jenkins in “North of Austin, West of Nashville: Red Dirt Music”.
Cooper said that, for him, the beginning comes down to two important guys.
“The two main rivers for me that created what is known as red dirt music … there’s two guys. It’s Bob Wills, the Texas Playboys; he was about let’s dance, let’s party, let’s play good time music, let’s forget our troubles. You know he went through the depression and times were tough and he gave people a way to escape their problems. The second river that flows into what I think is red dirt country is Woody Guthrie. He gave us that social consciousness of this is what’s going on in our world; ‘What can we do to fix it?’ Those two guys together are really to me the nut that formed the red dirt sound, it’s the party aspect mixed with the social aspect. I really believe that. I didn’t come up with that; my friend John Wooley did. I want to credit him on that. I think he’s absolutely right, those two guys are the main, they are like the pillars, the base,” explained Cooper.
Although Woody Guthrie is usually the main name given when asked who influenced these pioneers with their music, there were many more that had a hand in helping to form the influence for the red dirt movement.
“I’m just overwhelmed and in awe of Woody’s contributions to my music, to all this music,” Tom Skinner once said about Guthrie’s influence in the book “Alternative Oklahoma: Contrarian Views of the Sooner State” by Davis. D. Joyce. “I’m happy as hell to be caught up in this. It’s a certain pride probably – pride in singing songs about Oklahoma and what people here believe in… There just wouldn’t be red dirt music if not for what Woody did. God bless him.”
Cooper said there’s plenty more guys who deserve some credit for inspiration here.
“We used to say it was a mix between Merle Haggard and the Rolling Stones; it’s truly country rock. And the artists that we looked up to were the guys that were melding rock and roll with country, and rock and roll with bluegrass. They were bands like the Country Byrds; the Sweetheart of the Rodeo record was very important. The Flying Burrito brothers with Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, Poco, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band … those kind of bands that were really blending country and rock and roll and it hadn’t been done before. So we looked up to them a lot on a national way. And also we loved The Outlaws; Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bear, Merle Haggard, all those Outlaw Country guys out of Nashville. And then Leon Russell … he was our own guy,” explained Cooper.
Red dirt became a melting pot of genres; a way to synthesize all the different musical tastes that they all had at the time. It was a way to stretch and grow and try new things. Although this all started in Stillwater, it didn’t take too long before it started traveling to other places. LaFave was one of the first musicians to start taking red dirt music outside of the local area, when he moved to Austin in the mid-‘80s.
“Jimmy Lafave was the first guy to take it out, and then other bands started following and going out,” said Cooper. “We did a lot of time in Austin as well; we had a label out there and made some records in Austin and started touring pretty heavily actually nationwide. But not just us; other bands as well. Childers was moving around; he went to Nashville for a while and then to Austin. Skinner moved to Baton Rouge. We were starting to export it, and that’s when it started taking on more of a national flavor, and the guys and gals of Texas took notice. I think the tipping point was when Ragweed, Boland, Stoney, Brandon Jenkins … all those guys moved to the Austin area and basically took over their scene.”
Childers moved his trailer onto the Farm in the ‘90s, upon returning from a move to Nashville. The garage was then used as a sort of jam session playground and was called The Gypsy Café. It is still used for the yearly festival of the same name to honor Childers. During the ‘90s more and more musicians found their way to The Farm – like Mike McClure, Cody Canada, Jason Boland, Stoney LaRue, Monica Taylor and more. When this next generation of musicians started filtering it, it’s also when the red dirt sound started evolving and changing even more. That, though, will have to wait for part two of this series of articles – The next generation of red dirt and The Yellow House.